Genius Recipes

Jammy Tomato Sauce Is a Hands-Free Miracle

1) Chop nothing. 2) Fill pot. 3) Move along.

February 12, 2020

Every week in Genius Recipes—often with your help!—Food52 Creative Director and lifelong Genius-hunter Kristen Miglore is unearthing recipes that will change the way you cook.

What started as a procrastination cure—a way to not succumb to the grip of temptation to cook-cook-cook instead of write—turned into a rich, jammy tomato sauce of outsize greatness that will require almost no input from you.

Phyllis Grant, longtime Food52 contributor and blogger behind Dash and Bella, was writing an earlier version of her raw, beautiful, soon-to be-released memoir Everything Is Under Control. “I would promise myself I wouldn’t cook,” she told me. “Because if I start cooking, forget about it. Nothing else is gonna happen.” This hands-free sauce saved her from herself.


What I’ve discovered is that this also means you can tuck her recipe easily into your life, even if that life happens to include a weekly column, newsletter, and video series, a looming book deadline, and a cheery 10-month-old baby who’s becoming both a night owl and a morning person (for example).

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Top Comment:
“I will cook anything Phyllis Grant cooks and read everything she writes! Both her recipes and writing are singularly unique, a truly original voice. Can't wait to receive my copy of her forthcoming book! ”
— Tabledeckers

Because, in spite of all of this, you can fling everything into a pot and take care of business for a few hours, swinging back by the stove every half hour or so, just to give it a stir and make sure it’s behaving itself. Meanwhile, you can write, you can chore, you can chill (you can read Phyllis’s book, and the smells coming from the kitchen will grow and intensify, quietly letting you know that you’ll have a very good dinner waiting for you at the end of the day).

Those things that go into the pot, naturally, are the ones that Phyllis often likes to pull from in her cooking, as we saw in her columns for us at Food52—the balsamic reduction, the long-cooked tomatoes, the anchovies, the herbs. But nothing is chopped, not a cutting board is dirtied.

Unless you *want* to dirty a cutting board because it's pretty.

A few hours later, what started as a loose pool of acidic and bright and punchy ingredients has become a tightly woven, entirely new sauce: sweeter, more savory, and jammier—both in stickiness and intensity—than tomato sauces you’ve had before.

It turns out there are some fun-fact reasons for that, beyond just good ingredients and getting the time to do good work.

There are the classic flavor-improvers of reduction, caramelization, and Maillard reaction going on (thank you, as always, Kenji), as all sloshiness bubbles away and leaves a more concentrated, complex base. In other words, with a little heat over an extended period of time, long-cooked tomatoes have evolved to a higher form.

But the one bonus interaction I didn’t know about (or have since had replaced with book design ideas and assorted, conflicting toddler-rearing advice) was this: umami boosters! As Cook’s Illustrated explains, naturally present glutamates (aka umami) may taste pretty great on their own (hi, tomatoes, among others), but will taste even better in the presence of either one of the nucleotides inosinate or guanylate (hi, anchovies, among others). Tomato and Anchovy are right there in the name of this recipe, and it’s their interaction that forms the backbone of the sauce (with or without you being terribly involved).

This is the sort of food science that sticks with me, and helps me remember that my steak would respond really well to soy, and dried mushrooms could amp up my ragu. (And yes, there are vegetarian options on the nucleotides list, too, though it’s worth noting the environmental and health perks of eating anchovies.)

You can use this officially umami-boosted base sauce to dress pasta tonight, smear on grilled cheese tomorrow, and braise beans or chicken this weekend. Be sure to do as Phyllis does, and offer a glut of toppings to give any dinner companions (and you) the impression of being entirely in control.

Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Perhaps something perfect for beginners? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • MLHE
  • Rosiej
  • Bob
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  • Leann Lev
    Leann Lev
I'm an ex-economist, lifelong-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007, before returning to the land of Dutch Crunch bread and tri-tip barbecues in 2020. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."


MLHE March 2, 2020
For years I wanted to be Ina's Jeffrey. Now I want to be Kristen's baby! Today I made this sauce. In years past, I've made tomato sauces ("gravies") from a wide range of recipes (including one that came over on a boat that sailed from Italy early in the 1900s) and this one...oh my...this one was THE BEST IN MY PERSONAL HISTORY OF TOMATO ROMANCE.
Kristen M. March 5, 2020
Love this! And my baby will be so honored.
Rosiej February 21, 2020
So I made this tonight and will probably never be without this again. Made the recipe exactly with no changes. Since I prefer a less chunky tomato sauce and didnt want to haul out the stick blender, I used Pomi finely chopped tomatoes. Perfect. Let it go for 5 hours since I had time. What a depth of flavor! Since I was using Bucatini I followed suggestion for the starch water. Perfect. Topped with toasted pine nuts, buttery toasted Panko, parsley, a few room temp crumbles of goat cheese and a few small bits of sautéed Italian sausage on the side for my meat-loving husband. Just wow. So many uses I can think of for this. I have some leftover polenta in the frig that I may slice and fry this weekend and top with this “jam”. Thank you thank you thank you.
Kristen M. March 5, 2020
Bob February 19, 2020
Is ham without added nitrites still on the list of flavor enhancers?
Kristen M. March 5, 2020
I would think so, yes.
Bob February 19, 2020
Can you use fresh shitake instead of dried?
Kristen M. March 5, 2020
CLK February 16, 2020
My family is now putting this on everything and they are hard to please. Easy and fabulous which is a tough combo.
MLHE March 2, 2020
Literally, your family could probably put this sauce on PopTarts and find them utterly delicious.
Kristen M. March 5, 2020
So glad!
Leann L. February 15, 2020
Yesterday I’ve made half the amount of the recipe, just to try it. I’m so sorry I didn’t make the whole lot and then some.
Dumping everything in was easy and quick, my kitchen started to smell heavenly 20 minutes in and after 2 hours I couldn’t take the wait any longer.
Because of this miracle sauce I’ve had 3 bowls of pasta in less than 24 hours. Never making another tomato sauce ever!!!
Kristen M. March 5, 2020
So happy to hear this.
anne February 14, 2020
Made this for a simple Valentine's dinner. The flavors were fantastic. I'll definitely make it again and again.
Kristen M. March 5, 2020
viviancooks February 14, 2020
It's not hands free if you have to stir it every 20 minutes for 2-3 hours!!! I vote the slow cooker.
Kristen M. March 5, 2020
Fair enough!
Phillip G. February 13, 2020
"Nucleotides"? Are you sure you're using that term correctly? That's actually genetic material (think DNA), and it's in vanishingly small quantities in whole anchovies. And also, their are many ingredients that add umami that aren't glutamic acid. The anchovies add more umami, for instance.
Kristen M. March 5, 2020
Thanks for pointing that out, Phillip. I was grossly oversimplifying from the Cook's Illustrated article I linked above, which is worth a read—they were specifically referring to the nucleotides inosinate or guanylate:
Diana S. February 13, 2020
Citing the "environmental perks" of eating anchovies is misleading, if you read the whole article you'll see that scientists don't agree on the sustainability of anchovy fishing since they are a bottom tier species in the ocean food web. Not in the linked article but still relevant: any fishing is overfishing! Sad because while fish are a healthier protein than chicken, pork, and beef, they all still have a substantial environmental impact when consumed. I'd replace the anchovies with dried mushrooms 👍
Kristen M. March 5, 2020
Thanks for sharing this, Diana.
Bethlewod February 12, 2020
If making vegetarian, how much Porcini powder would be recommended to replace anchovies?
Kristen M. March 5, 2020
Without testing, I'd probably start with a tablespoon and see how I like it, then modify for next time.
Elizabeth February 12, 2020
I'm curious- can this be done in a slow cooker?
Eric K. February 12, 2020
Mmm, I love that idea. I'm sure it would work perfectly. 6 to 8 hours on low should do the trick.
Carol S. February 12, 2020
Can I leave out the red wine?
Phyllis G. February 12, 2020
Absolutely. And if it seems too dry along the way, you can add some water or stock.
Barbara February 12, 2020
Do you think you can skip the anchovies for a vegetarian sauce? Would you sub something?
Phyllis G. February 12, 2020
I often make it without anchovies. No need to sub anything. Taste at the end and season with more salt and sherry wine vinegar if it seems flat.
Barbara February 12, 2020
Thank you for the quick reply!!
Tammy M. February 12, 2020
Capers are a great substitute for anchovies!
Francesca S. February 12, 2020
Melissa B. February 12, 2020
I was very confused reading that certain foods contain nucleotides, because ALL foods contain nucleotides (they are the building blocks of DNA, which of course is the genetic material of tomatoes and lettuce as much as anchovies or soybeans). The Cooks Illustrated article clarifies that it's actually two specific and less common nucleotides that provide tasty umami flavor: inosinate and guanylate, which aren't part of our DNA.
Kristen M. March 5, 2020
Thank you for pointing my gross oversimplification out, Melissa!
Tabledeckers February 12, 2020
I will cook anything Phyllis Grant cooks and read everything she writes! Both her recipes and writing are singularly unique, a truly original voice.
Can't wait to receive my copy of her forthcoming book!
Phyllis G. February 12, 2020
Wow. This comment certainly made me smile. Thanks so much for your support!
Patricia B. February 12, 2020
I’m interested in the bottle that contained oil that Kirsten used in this recipe.
Kristen M. March 5, 2020
I believe it's the bottom part of this:
Donald W. February 12, 2020
how would you make a bolognese version?
Kristen M. March 5, 2020
I'd probably lightly brown the meat in olive oil before adding the rest of the ingredients (or I'd just make this):
Sharon February 12, 2020
Can you use anchovy paste instead of the anchovies?
Tracy B. February 12, 2020
I was thinking the same...anybody?
Tom L. February 12, 2020
Probably the most appropriate response is, "it depends". See the following article:
Tracy B. February 12, 2020
Thanks Tom! I think I'll go with the filets.
Phyllis G. February 12, 2020
Yes. Anchovy paste works great in this recipe.